High school football: Illinois 8-Man Football Association adds 5 members, expands playoff

Alden-Hebron's Melanie Georgi sports an Illinois 8-Man Football Association logo on the back of her helmet during practice Nov. 6 in Hebron. A-H coach John Lalor has been a driving force behind the 8-man football movement in Illinois.
Alden-Hebron's Melanie Georgi sports an Illinois 8-Man Football Association logo on the back of her helmet during practice Nov. 6 in Hebron. A-H coach John Lalor has been a driving force behind the 8-man football movement in Illinois.

After the IHSA announced Dec. 18 that a district football proposal had passed a membership vote, Alden-Hebron athletic director and football coach John Lalor received “a lot more calls” about 8-man football.

“Everybody I talked to kind of says the same thing,” Lalor said. “They’re worried about having to travel farther, but I also think – and I can speak more from the small-school [perspective] – I think it was matchups, worried about the matchups they would be forced to play.”

IHSA member schools voted last month to overhaul the high school football landscape. The change eliminates traditional football conferences in favor of IHSA-created districts that group teams together based on enrollment and geography.

Lalor believes the change “definitely stirred things up” for small schools considering 8-man football as an option.

Alden-Hebron is one of the founding members of the Illinois 8-Man Football Association, which formed before the 2018 season. Alden-Hebron’s football coach since 2003, Lalor has spearheaded the 8-man movement in Illinois. The Giants’ football program, which is a co-op with Faith Lutheran, became one of the first schools to move to 8-man in 2017, well before the I8FA existed.

Since last season ended, the I8FA has added five schools for 2019, bringing the total to 11 teams. Lalor is hopeful that number could rise as high as 14. The I8FA has given schools until March 1 to declare their intentions.

River Ridge, Polo, North Fulton, the Flanagan-Cornell-Woodland co-op and Metro-East Lutheran have committed for 2019. Metro-East, located in Edwardsville, will become the I8FA’s southernmost member.

With the rise in membership, the I8FA plans to expand its postseason next year, as well. The league played a
four-team playoff in the fall, with the championship game hosted at Monmouth College.

In 2019, all qualifying members will participate in the playoff. Currently, nine of 11 members would be eligible.

Illinois School for the Deaf is a partial member of the I8FA, so it would not qualify. The I8FA bylaws state that schools with enrollments of more than 400 students are not eligible for the postseason, so Lake Forest Academy also would not qualify.

But all qualifying members would have a shot in the postseason, no matter how many schools end up playing 8-man next year.

“That will generate even more excitement and interest,” Lalor said.

Last season, Milford-Cissna Park defeated Alden-Hebron in the inaugural 8-man championship game. The hope is to host next year’s championship at Monmouth again.

“We were extremely happy [with host Monmouth College],” Lalor said. “They were so good to us helping get things off the ground.”

Lalor has long believed more schools would turn to the 8-man game as a way to save their programs, whether the IHSA implemented a district system or not. He said he can see both sides of the district argument for 11-man football schools.

“It’s going to be a learning process for everybody,” Lalor said. “I’m sure it’s not going to make everybody happy.”

With the IHSA completely restructuring the football season by 2021, it might seem a convenient time for the high school sports governing body to also take over the 8-man game. But Lalor, who is the I8FA’s president, said the IHSA has not reached out to him about making 8-man football an IHSA sport.

“We really haven’t had that discussion,” said IHSA assistant executive director Sam Knox, who oversees football. “We have had a discussion about it that at some point we’ll have to look at 8-man to possibly cooperate with those schools to offer an IHSA state championship. But it’s pretty early in the game to know that because there’s such a small number of schools at this time that play 8-man football.”

Knox wanted to get a look at the 8-man game in action in November when he attended the inaugural championship game.

“Not surprisingly, it looked like football,” Knox said. “It wasn’t a whole lot different than what you’re used to seeing on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.

“I admired the fans who made the long trip over to Monmouth College to support their teams. It was great to see those kids have an opportunity to play for a state title.”

Knox said the IHSA will continue to monitor developments in 8-man football. Lalor envisions the I8FA with possibly as many as 20 or 30 schools within the next few years.

Ever since Lalor first announced A-H’s move to 8-man in December 2016, he has said the long-term goal is to make 8-man football an official IHSA sport.

“We’ve said all along, if that happens, that’s great,” Lalor said. “That’s what we’re trying to do: Lay the groundwork.”

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